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Monday, May 11, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 48 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 44 of Lockdown



Magic SMS

11 May 2020


A few days ago, 16 migrant workers who were walking on a railway track to their village in Madhya Pradesh, felt so tired that they slept on the tracks near Jalna, Aurangabad district. Since the trains were cancelled, they assumed that no trains would ply on those tracks. Little did they know that they would be soon run over by a goods train. Perched atop a heap of mangoes on the Agra-bound truck coming from Hyderabad, 15 migrant workers were headed towards Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. The truck overturned killing 5 workers and leaving 13 others injured. In another incident, a boy cycling back to Bihar from Delhi, was run over by a car while he was taking a meal break. These are only a few of the terrible incidents that are happening due to this ill-conceived lockdown. The pro-Government news channels do not find it important enough to highlight the plight of these poor migrant workers. Thankfully, there are some who are still doing their jobs as journalists. 

On the 6th of May, when Karnataka Government announced a stop on special trains, many labourers set off on foot towards their homes in the North of India. In two days, due to strong criticism by the opposition and worker’s union, the Government had to take a U-turn on its decision. Unfortunately there is still no clear communication on how this whole thing works. How can a migrant worker board these special trains?

Like Sugreev, many migrant workers who have registered on Seva Sindhu website or at a police station near them are still waiting for that SMS to show up, which would inform them of their itinerary. Many have given up hope. Sugreev told me that he had met a man from UP (Uttar Pradesh) who, with 17 others, is about to begin his walk on the 11th. Others before them, had done the same and found trucks to reach various destinations on this 2300 KM long journey. "If you are walking in bigger groups, the police won’t stop you", he had told Sugreev. Somehow, Sugreev and his friends could not make up their mind to take up this precarious journey. If they are to hitch-hike, they would have to travel from Bangalore to Hyderabad, then to Nagpur, Jabalpur, Prayagraj and finally Gorakpur. This journey isn’t safe by any means. Apart from that, the truck drivers charge anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 2000 per head.

This morning, Sugreev called me at around 7:30 AM. He told me that he had spoken to a man from his village who had recently left Bangalore on a Shramik train. According to him, the migrant workers gathered near Nice road junction on Kanakpura road would be handed over a token by the police and would then be transported to the railway stations in buses. By the way, to avoid crowd, the trains are not leaving from city center. They will only ply from Malur (50km) and Chikkabannur (20km). 

Looking at his eagerness, I decided to take Sugreev to Nice road junction and verify the news. On our way, I noticed that Bangalore has sprung back to life. Private vehicles are plying as usual and there are enough traffic jams at the traffic signals. Along the way, we stopped at two places to speak to different groups of migrant workers sitting by the main road. Everyone had the same story to tell. The police at the Nice road junction had asked them to go to their nearest police station for the tokens. 

At the junction, there were at least a 100 migrant workers waiting patiently with their luggage. To avoid the scorching sun, they had found some trees to sit under. We met a group of men from UP who had also registered on Seva Sindhu website but never received a SMS. They have been coming to this location every single day. They were discussing on spending the night at the tents setup outside a near-by police station. There, they would be served free food. 

The police had setup temporary camps next to the toll booths. There were around 10 policemen in the one we visited. I enquired about the situation with a constable. He politely gave us the necessary information. He told us that they were, in fact, handing out tokens to workers a few days ago and transporting them to the railway stations. But as it got crowded, they are now requesting people to go to the police stations near their house and make an entry, and wait for their turn. He told me that there was one train leaving to Bihar the next day and that they can get a token that same evening. When asked about a train to UP, he said that he did not have much information, as he himself was from Mysore. We thanked him and left.

We decided to inform Upendar about the Bihar train. Upendar has left the construction site near my house and has moved to his room on Bannerghatta road. His contractor has promised him to get a ticket back home. 

Sugreev and I rode to the police station near my house. Two constables were sitting in the main hall - A middle-aged man and a young man in his late 20’s. The older one asked me to wait as he had a man already sitting in front of him, waiting to file a complaint. He kept him waiting while he cracked some jokes with his friends. Meanwhile, we stood at a distance, waiting. 

A visit to a police station in India can be an emotionally draining experience. There was an enquiry going on in a room next to where we stood. Two boys were being questioned. We could clearly hear the constables hit the two as they pleaded for mercy. As people walked in and out of that room, we saw the police ruthlessly hitting the two boys with a hockey stick while the boys cried in pain. When the two boys saw me, their eyes displayed a mixed emotion of pain and embarrassment. And then, the door closed again. 

When it was our turn to speak to the constables sitting in the main hall, I narrated the situation to them. The old man told me that registering on Seva Sindhu website was sufficient. "A SMS would arrive soon",  he assured me. When I told him that it has been more than week and there has been no sms till date, he was dumbfounded. By then the young man, who I presume is new to this job, said that one has to also register at the police station. He asked me to bring all four workers to the police station. 

We went back home and asked the others to join us at the police station with their Aadhaar cards (National ID Card). By now the two boys who were badly beaten up by the police were sitting on a bench at one end of the main hall. Next to them, sat two more well-dressed, middle-aged men. A boy walked in straight up to one of them and handed over a cellphone. The police quickly stopped him. Apparently, it was the son of one of the men. The police confiscated the phone, scolded the boy, and asked him to go away. The two policemen were trying very hard to sound aggressive, but were failing miserably. 

One by one, the names of the workers were entered in a sheet of paper by the boy constable. He questioned each one of them on what was already on their Aadhaar card. When I tried to clarify something, he said to me in Kannada - " Wait! let them answer, I am verifying." 

What was he actually checking? Are they criminals? They want to go back to their homes and they are showing their Aadhaar card as ID proof. What is there to verify by asking them to repeat what is already in the card? I failed to understand, but he had to do his job. 

Meanwhile, one of the workers, Sudama had an issue. His Aadhaar card had his father’s name instead of his. So, his name was not Sudama, as mentioned in the card, but Neeraj. In India this is possible. Neeraj is the shy one and he barely answers a question. He wasn’t able to answer the constable well. The boy constable kept asking him all sorts of questions - What is the name of your village? Where are you going? What is the full form of UP (Uttar Pradesh)? Seriously, the cops were questioning them as though, they would lie and take a jolly ride in a train around India during this pandemic. 

And then, there was another major issue; this time with Neeraj’s age. As per the Aadhaar card, he is only 14 years of age. It is illegal for kids under the age of 14 to work. I had noticed this when I had registered them on the website. When I had asked about it, they told me that it was again an error in the card. I am not sure if that is true. What I know for sure is that we need to analyse this in detail before jumping into any conclusions. Why do people choose to work at young age instead of going to school? Is there a flaw in the system itself? We cannot sit in the comforts of our city homes and dictate law to the poor. A detailed analysis would be required.

Anyways, the constables were surprised. They laughed and told me that I could be jailed for hiring him. I explained to them again that I wasn’t their owner and was living next to the construction site where they work. Then the boy constable asked - 

"So, why is it that you are bringing them here?" 

"Because they have been struggling since the lockdown was announced and there is no one to help them." I replied without a delay. 

That seemed to silence him. He quickly went into a room and checked with another man who was working on a computer. That man suggested that age 15 can be written on the entry form. While the boy constable was away, the old man looked at me and told - 

"They will get a SMS soon. You should be doing all this work, but we are doing it on your behalf anyways." In India, that statement means  - "I shall be doing my duty, like it is a favour and would expect a bribe for it." 

Having dealt enough with the police before, I smiled and remained silent. The boy constable returned and quickly completed the details for the last worker.

"A SMS would arrive soon!" they sang in unison. 

However, Sugreev and his friends did not seem hopeful about this additional step in the process. Two of Sugreev’s friends for whom I had registered on Seva Sindhu website earlier were also asked to go to their nearest police station. They were turned back by the police without an entry. The policemen had told them - 

"All this is not required. Only Seva Sindhu registration is enough. We take entries just to give some hope to workers."

Poor communication and misinformation has been causing terrible confusion for the migrant workers. They are running from pillar to post just to get on that special train that the Government boasts about on newspapers and twitter accounts. The migrant workers are so scared of the police that they hesitate to speak to them directly. Some of them at the Nice road junction told us that they got caned. I felt that it was necessary to fill these men with some confidence. I told Sugreev - 

"There is no reason for you to be afraid of these policemen. You are not committing a crime. All you want is to go back home." 

It is ridiculous how all this is unfolding. We are treating these people like criminals. All they want is to return to their homes, that too, with their own money. The Government is charging Rs 1020 for a ticket. They are prepared to overcome any hurdle that may come their way to get on that train. But, the question is - 

When will that magic SMS arrive?

5 comments:

  1. Don't know what to what to write. Very depressing.

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  2. That accident was indeed tragic. Even if they thought no trains would be running, I was wondering how come they chose to sleep on the tracks. Really sad. Their plight is like those of many similar people around the world.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. More important is to ask - Why were they walking on those railway tracks in the first place?

      Delete
    2. Of course, that is true, Ajaya. No doubt. That's something very basic, is it not? There should never have been such a situation when they had to even think of walking hundreds of kilometers to reach their own homes. Sad.

      Delete

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